FREEDOM FROM FEAR. PART III.

FREEDOM FROM FEAR. PART III.

On the verge of a historic election and review of a painful year, I came across another article depicting the adverse effects of overzealous societal lockdowns due to COVID concerns.  On this occasion, senior adults in Colorado were demonstrating because the authorities had prolonged their separation from loved ones. Many stated that they would rather die of the disease than loneliness.  For them, the emotional pain of being so rigidly separated from family is worse than the fear of catching COVID and dying from it.

From the very beginning of this threat, I have said that we need to live with a balance between courage and concern.  We don’t want to live in fear on the one hand, and, on the other, we want to be aware of just not doing stupid things.  A slew of young adults thrashing around in an indoor rave party?  Yep, that’s a stupid decision.  We need to be wise.  On the flip side, allowing fear to dictate our lives’ details will drive us to make poor decisions and lead us into slavery.  The wise Solomon noted that the “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe.”

As we’re progressing in this discussion over fear, we’ve noted that when we no longer have the right reverence of God, we begin to embrace a wrong fear of man and the situations of mankind. These fears may be a physical threat, such as something in nature or harm from another human being.  This human harm may be an actual attack or their withholding something good from us that we desire.  When we live with these fears controlling us, we begin to make poor choices and eventually pay the consequences of those choices.  Like many pieces of life, the Bible is chuck full of people who gave into fear, even great people of faith at times, and had to deal with the ripple effects of their choice.  While there are countless illustrations of this principle of the wrong fear leading to failure, here are three quick ones that almost immediately come to mind.

1. Abraham lied about his wife to save his life. That’s right, and he actually did it twice.  The history tells us that the patriarch was a friend of God and the model of faith by taking God at His word and stepping out to follow him.  But shortly after his call of faith, Abraham went down to Egypt because of a famine, even though God told him to go to another place.  He then told the Egyptians that his wife, Sarah, was his sister because he feared they would kill him to take her.  He did the same thing years later in Genesis chapter 20, and his son, Isaac, learned the lesson of fear and likewise lied about his wife, Rebekah, as well in Genesis 26:7.  They were afraid of physical death and thus chose to sin against the closest person to them to save their lives. 

Fear of physical danger from the elements or what someone might physically do to us can trap us and tempt us to do what we know is wrong.  It can also prevent us from doing what we know is right such as when Peter in the New Testament refused to acknowledge his allegiance to Jesus because of fear.  Fear can also be what others will withhold from us or say to us if we do not give in to their demands.  Thus, anxiety can lead to unhealthy broken boundaries and dysfunctional relationships because people are afraid to say no.

2. In Israel’s history, King Saul found himself in a tight situation with the Philistine army closing around him. 1 Samuel 13 records that out of fear, Saul offered up the burnt offering to God, which was a task reserved for the priests and prophets to do.  On this occasion, Samuel was the prophet and the one responsible for the sacrifice.  A keyword here is probably panic.  Saul surveyed his situation through the eyes of men and saw the threat with no sign of Samuel being around, so he made the sacrificed himself.  Immediately after Saul’s actions, Samuel showed up and informed him that his kingship would not endure because of his lack of faith and falling to fear.

Fear can also drive us to a controlling mentality when we fail to trust in God’s time and reason.  A controlling attitude may result in all kinds of dysfunctional relationships and missing out on God’s best because we took matters into our own hands.

Thinking of Abraham again, we see that he chose this path when he took Hagar in Genesis 16 in addition to Sarah with the hopes of producing the promised son through her.  Hagar’s son was Ishmael, and to this day, we still experience tension in the world between the offspring nations that came from him and Isaac.  Islam and Israel.

3. Another reality is that when we give in to fear, we can also miss out on the great victories that God may have for us.  Going again to Israel’s history, we see that the first generation that came out of Egypt mostly missed the promised land as they feared the present inhabitants even though God told them they would be victorious.  Generations later, we see that Gideon is about to go into war, and shortly before the battle took place, he announced to the army that “anyone who trembles with fear may turn back and leave Mount Gilead.'” So twenty-two thousand men left, while ten thousand remained.” Every time I read those numbers, I wonder what the 22 thousand men thought years later. I wonder if they kicked themselves for their decision to turn back and to miss out on the victory that God brought to his people.

The truth is that when God calls us into something, it will most usually mean stepping out of our comfort zone and bring risk.  It may mean we might actually suffer or even die.  On the other hand, when we know that we are his children and made for eternity, we can be at rest regardless of what happens in this realm, knowing what lies ahead in Heaven.  Then there is, of course, the reality that there are times when God brings us glorious results in the here and now, such as David’s victory over Goliath, which we noted in the first post over fear. 

In thinking again about the tensions of COVID and everything else in 2020, the reality is that a whole lot of folks will wake up discouraged and possibly fighting fear Wednesday morning following the Presidential election.  Regardless of who wins, half the country will experience a propensity to panic.  But for the child of God, we know that we do not have to live like the rest of the world does. We do not have to be driven by dread and fear.  We do not have to allow fear to rule us.  So how do we move from fear to faith?  Well, that will be the subject of our next post.

Freedom from Fear. Part II.

Freedom from Fear. Part II.

Excitement gushed from the faces of my two sons as we pulled into our high elevation campsite years ago in Yosemite National Park. Anticipation built until they were finally released from their unpacking and set-up duties to explore the world around them. By the end of the day’s adventures, they had more dirt on them than in the campfire ring. They were filthy, and they couldn’t care less. Their experience brought joy to my heart.

I love to see little children running around without a care in the world with all the energy the world has to offer. You get the feeling they’re not afraid of anything, and to some extent that is probably true. I read once that the only two fears children are born with are darkness and loud noises. If that is true, then just about all the fears we experience in life are either taught to us by someone or learned from negative experiences.

The Hinton Boys camping during the summer of 2006. I think!

So, what are the origins of fear? The theological answer is found in separation from God and His goodness. I find it interesting that in Genesis chapter 2 before sin entered the world, the man and the woman were both naked, yet experienced no shame. Everything changed, though in chapter 3, in connection to their rebellion against God. The text tells us that they were hiding in the garden because they were afraid of God.

Did you catch that? They went from no shame to a place of fearful desperation in almost a heartbeat. There is something to that. The demise of peace in Genesis 2:25 to the terror of heart in 3:10 has something to do with the attitude of mankind toward God. It was in the condition of rejecting God and being estranged and alone from God that fear arose.

Maybe a first step in discovering the origins of fear is to unpack exactly what we are talking about as some fears are reasonable. Considering children, I want them to have a “healthy fear” when it comes to electricity so that they don’t poke a key into a power outlet.

The Bible speaks of many kinds of fear. Some are healthy, and some are harmful. We can see an excellent form of fear when we look out over the Grand Canyon or look into the endless sky at night. Maybe the word “awe” is descriptive, and there are times in the Old Testament when fear is translated that way.

When you see something that is powerful and awesome, there is a respect in the heart for whatever this profound thing is. The Bible also refers to this type of awesome fear as reverence and is applied frequently to God himself. Awe is a good form of fear, and various texts in the Old Testament teach the value of this attitude. One such passage is Proverbs 9:10, which notes that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

The implication is that before their sin, Adam and Eve experienced some form of a healthy reverence toward God. After their rebellion though, this fear turned into dread, which is where most of humanity lives today.

The problem with our first parents in Genesis and all of us is that when we lose that reverence of God, we begin to elevate ourselves above God. The change leads to a wrong fear of the world of which we will unpack in our next post.

Addressing fear in our lives is both a quick and also a life long journey. The opening move from fear to faith is to see the connection between the perfect holiness of God and the love of God wedded in the cross of Christ. God’s holiness and love are mainly seen in 1 John 4:18 when the aging apostle noted that “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” The holy reverence of God demands punishment for sin. The perfect love of God is demonstrated by Jesus taking that punishment on the cross for whoever would receive his grace and forgiveness. When I grasp that reality and step over the line, giving my life to Christ, then I can rest in the care of God regardless of what is going on in the world around me.

Moving forward in the daily journey occurs as I set my heart toward God with a hopeful trust and a reverent fear. As I grow in this realm, I can push past the fears of the world. God has provided his great love for me, and thus the assurance of his care for me.

In conclusion, Jesus himself gave the encouraging words of “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” and those same words apply today to those who know him.

Yes, there is much we could fear. But in Christ, we need not live that way, but rather in faith. Be strong my friend, be strong!

Freedom From Fear. Part I.

Freedom From Fear. Part I.

If you’re looking around these days there is plenty to be afraid of.  We have experienced unprecedented circumstances with COVID19 which has caused fear of the actual virus and ripple effects to the economy and countless personal ramifications around the country and globe.  The past few weeks have brought news images of racism, riots, heightened political saber-rattling and the list goes on.

Looking beyond the present panic though, fear is something that has plagued many people as far back as they can remember which affects every part of their lives and those closest to them.  Why are some driven by fear while others can face it and rise above it?  Why are there times when even the bravest among us are stymied by inner struggles?

Throughout the Bible we hear the voice of God calling out to his people to not give in to fear somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 times.  One powerful occasion is the Lord speaking to the leader, Joshua, with the call to “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Yes, when we look at the divine connection we can see the fear in a different light. On the other hand, if we are merely the accidental byproducts of evolution with no eternal and divine purpose, then people may be right to fear. After all, the honest conclusion is that it is all about the survival of the fittest in this life alone.

However you cut it though, there is an element of fear in the hearts of mankind that we must deal with.  Questions arise such as: Where does fear come from? How does fear affect us and how can we move past it?  Those are the questions that I will address over the next three posts.

In considering the plague of fear, I am reminded of the differences in how the first two kings of Israel faced evil and danger in 1 Samuel chapter 17 which occurred around 1000 BC.  At the time, Saul was king and he and his entire army faced off with the Philistines and their champion, Goliath.  The text tells us that Saul and the army of Israel were “dismayed and terrified” as they looked at the evil and danger.  David, who would later become king himself, focused his eyes and heart above the fray onto God and declared that it was not “by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”  With that, David charged the danger head-on and won the victory for Israel even though he was no match physically for the Philistine warrior. 

Instead of looking around at all the potential fears of this realm, David looked up to the creator of the world and overcame it.  I want you and me to live that way as well. God wants us to live that way.  Paul exhorted the young evangelists, Timothy to not fear because “God gave us not a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.”  Because of Christ, we can move from a life of fear to a life of faith.

Rolling with the Punches!

Rolling with the Punches!

I’ve never been a boxer and the last time I was in a fist fight was in the spring of 1988 when I was actually trying to break up a brawl when one of the combatants jumped me.  But I’ve come to appreciate the phrase, roll with the punches, which is originally from the sport of boxing.  It is the practice of strategically moving one’s head back and forth away from the opponent’s glove to lessen the impacts of blows.  But there is a larger application to the statement than sports.

The first time I remember hearing the phrase was back in 1994 while serving as a missionary in Moscow, Russia. When I heard “we’ve got to roll with the punches, Steve” it came from a mentor who was advising me on how we needed to respond to an unexpected situation.  In daily life the battle phrase is often used as an encouragement to adjust with flexibility and thus withstand and even find victory amidst ever changing and even negative circumstances.

With all the changes going on these days, this phrase certainly seems appropriate.  Earlier today I was looking at my 2020 wall sized calendar on which I had sketched out a general path for the new year back in January.  Now we’re making plans for streaming Easter services online instead of logistically planning for people to gather in our church building.  Life has changed.  While the present COVID19 situation is certainly a unique example, the reality is that life seldom goes exactly as we would like. Accidents happen, people get sick or make choices we weren’t expecting, and often our plans are sidetracked by something or someone else.

But we don’t have to allow the blows of life to dictate our thinking and actions. We can roll with the punches.  As noted, I’m not a boxer and don’t know how long I’d last in the ring.  But here are three simple starting pointers that will help maneuver through the punches of life that come our way.

1.  Decide to take a deep breath and keep calm.

One verse that has continuously rung through my head over the past month is from 2 Timothy chapter 4 where the veteran apostle Paul is encouraging the young evangelist Timothy. After a charge to continue preaching Christ no matter what, Paul told Timothy to “keep his head in all situations.”  We don’t know everything that Timothy was facing in his day, but this exhortation would obviously apply for us now.  It’s so easy to let our imaginations run wild or to begin making judgement calls when we don’t have all the data. This is especially true when we are bombarded with a news media that thrives on fanning the negative while ignoring the positive.

2.  Deliberately look for good.

In thinking of Paul again, I’m reminded of the book of Philippians which was written when the apostle was in prison for Christ. Despite his bondage, Philippians is truly a book of encouragement in which Paul concludes toward the end; “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Yes, this season of COVID19 will bring pain.  But we can choose to look at the recovery cases which don’t always show up as headlines and the tiny pieces of good around the globe which are often swept under the rug of panic.  One example in this season of chaos, is that we are seeing people take stock of what is really important in their lives and that is a good thing. 

3. Do what you can control.

Personally for me, fear has not been a big emotion in this season. Anger on the other hand has been something I’ve had to wrestle with. I know that there is usually something deeper at play with anger and I suppose that probably one underlying issue for me is just all the things that I simply cannot control.  This past fall a wise man rightfully encouraged me to leave most of the uncontrollable things alone and focus on what I do have control over.  This principle is something that made U.S. Grant such a great general in the Civil War.  While many Union officers were consumed with worry about what general Lee of the south was doing, Grant continued to push forward with what he could control and eventually brought the Army of Northern Virginia to it’s knees and a conclusion to the war.  So maybe a huge help for us would be to honestly admit that there are things in life we cannot control.  Then we can let them go and have the freedom to focus on what is in our power right now to change for the good.

Today, right now, I can . . .

-Own my own mistakes.

-Get up and keep fighting after a failure.

-Continue to readjust and plan for the future while all the while holding it gently in my hands.

-Make the most of the immediate and present relationships and opportunities right in front of me.

-Thank God for the small blessings around me each day.  Wow, I really do love hearing those birds early in the morning each day in my front yard.

-I can encourage someone else who is struggling and trust that God is still on the throne no matter what life brings.

What would you add?

It’s funny, as I actually recounted the “roll with the punches” phrase a few days ago to one of my children.  After I shared it, I had to stop and wonder if they even knew what I was talking about. It was a life lesson for them and I hope that it will be an encouraging pointer for you as well.

The Holy Next Step!

The Holy Next Step!

Sometimes the best thing to do when you’re at the end of the rope is to trust God and just do the next thing. A while back on a Sunday afternoon, I was physically exhausted and emotionally spent after preaching that morning. I was also handling a number of church projects and concerns that felt like a mountaineering backpack filled with lead, all the while knowing I had an important meeting that night. But after a short crash on my bed and watching my favorite football team get beat, I threw some water on my face, stood still for a moment, asked Jesus for physical help, and put one foot in front of the other. 

We don’t see that a lot in the Bible, but that’s pretty much what life is. We like the action stories of David whopping Goliath, but we silently ignore all the days that David was in the desert waiting on God. Eventually, God worked through that normal Hebrew teenager who was stepping out in faith on a daily basis.

It was a good meeting and teaching time that Sunday night. I was still physically beat when I got home, but there was more of a smile on my face than when I left. I’m not sure what caused the positive change in my demeanor that night. It could have been something as simple as the additional dopamine in my brain chemistry caused by the physical action of getting up and moving. Maybe it was a swath of encouragement from the Holy Spirit. Or maybe it was just a sense that if I kept climbing, I’d eventually reach the summit of the mountain, and that’s a good thought.

What is the next step before you today?  What will it cost you to take it?  What will it cost you if you do not take it?

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You can find more encouraging narratives in the book, Confessions: “Finding Hope Through One Pastor’s Doubt.”

The Decisions for Divisions.

The Decisions for Divisions.

I hate it and it breaks my heart.  Over the past six months I have witnessed up close the division in two churches unleashing emotions of sorrow and anger but for different reasons.

In the first situation, a church was searching for a new senior minister and one of the associates asked to take the lead role even though he had no formal Bible college experience.  While the younger leader did have some great qualities, the eldership reasoned that this position required a more solid theological background than what the associate possessed.  The request for the position was denied.  Instead of choosing to accept the decision of the eldership, the associate first attempted a church coup to overturn the elder’s lead and when that proved unsuccessful, he initiated a church split and took half the people with him.  There was no immorality on the part of the eldership or foreign doctrines; they simply required a higher standard of education for the lead role than what the associate had.  Because he didn’t get what he wanted – he initiated a split.

In the second occasion, the church eldership asked the lead minister to resign.  In this situation, there was no immorality on the part of the minister or practice of heretical teaching. Rather, he was working to take the church out of complacency toward a more aggressive and missional path.  The eldership on the other hand was satisfied in playing life safe and controllable.  But the real difference in the two situations was in how this leader responded to the decision of the elders.  He had enough people who loved him in the church that he also could have initiated an eldership overthrow and if that did not work, could have launched a full church split.  However, what he chose to do was humbly release it into God’s hands and step away.

In both cases, my heart goes out to someone. In the first situation, for the people of the church body that kept their cool and suffered the wrath and hysteria from those who split the church. In the second, for the minister and his family who cared more for the church even though they were the ones wronged.  They could have staked their claim in pride. They however, humbly blamed no one, chose peace, and walked away leaving the whole situation in God’s hands.

In thinking again about the Bride of Christ and how we treat the church, these two real illustrations remind me of a very profound passage in 1 Corinthians chapter three dealing with divisions in the church.  In verse 17 Paul warns the readers that “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him, for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.”

Early on when I read that passage, I thought Paul was talking about persecution and that those who attacked the church would eventually receive God’s wrath and judgement if they did not repent.  While there is probably some truth to this assessment, that interpretation does not fit the context.  The section deals with divisions within the church at Corinth with various factions following different leaders. Some followed Paul and some followed Peter or someone else.  Thus they ended up putting human leaders ahead of unity in Christ. This was not about differences in imperative doctrines, but personalities and possible preferences.  They divided on what they wanted instead of what was really important and Paul made it clear this was no small deal.  As noted in a blog post a few weeks ago, Jesus loves the Bride of Christ and so should we.  From 1 Corinthians we should also glean a little bit of fear and trembling.  Messing with the church for selfish reasons is not only destructive to people, but insulting to Christ and Paul indicates this can be a very costly mistake.

What about the church body that you are aware of or connected to?  Are you working to put the mission of Christ and the local church ahead of yours?  Are there times of clear heretical teaching, such as denying the deity of Christ or the clear teaching on sexuality in a world of confusion?  Yes. Such issues should be dealt with and are worth going to the mat for. However, the sad reality is that many of the divisions in churches are usually because of personal choice rather than real doctrine.  The results are both bloody and sinful.

We can, however, live another way.  What can you do today to strengthen the unity of your local church?